Category Archives: Reviews

Why I bought an iPhone 8 Plus after using the iPhone X for 5 months

Over at Wirecutter, we think the iPhone X is the phone of the future. Between facial identification for authentication, fewer physical buttons, and a gesture-heavy interface, the X represents where flagship smartphones are heading.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the iPhone X is the best phone for everyone right now. In fact, it’s not even the best one for me. After five months of long-term testing an iPhone X, it was recently time to return my review unit, so I had to buy a new phone for myself. (I had handed my previous personal iPhone down to a family member.) After weeks of indecision, I bought an iPhone 8 Plus instead of an iPhone X.

You’ve likely read at least a handful of “iPhone X vs. 8” articles by now, and maybe dozens of iPhone X reviews. So rather than give you a rundown of the spec-sheet differences between the two models, I’m going to focus on the differences I actually noticed in the course of using both models extensively—the iPhone X for five months, and the 8 Plus for a couple months before that and for a few weeks since.

(Disclaimer: I’m a Plus-size phone enthusiast. Before the 8 Plus and X debuted, I used the 6 Plus, 6s Plus, and 7 Plus for a year each. So the comments below are based on comparisons of the X against the iPhone 8 Plus. If I had to choose between the standard 8 and the X, I’m pretty sure I’d take the X.)

Things that are real advantages for the iPhone X

It’s only fair to point out the areas where the iPhone X is a clear winner.

  • App switching: It may sound crazy, but for me, this—not the screen, or Face ID, or the Animoji/Portrait Mode selfie camera—is the very best thing about the X compared to other iPhones. I switch apps many, many (many) times each day, and the “swipe across the bottom of the screen” gesture is so much simpler, easier, and faster than app switching on other iPhones that I almost bought the X just to get this gesture. There’s nothing hardware-dependent about it, so Apple could add it to the 8 Plus and every other iPhone with a software update…but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Swipe up for Home: Though not quite as addictive as the app-switching gesture, I also love being able to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get to the Home screen. My finger is usually already on the screen when I want to go Home, so this gesture is enough of an added convenience—and less of an awkward reach than the Home button—that I really miss it on the 8 Plus.

  • Physical size: I don’t know a single person, no matter how much they love their Plus-size phone, who says, “I love carrying this huge thing around; it feels so great in my hand.” The people who love the 6/6s/7/8 Plus love it in spite of its physical size—in other words, for the larger screen and battery that its physical size enables. The iPhone X, on the other hand, does feel great in the hand. (It feels pretty much like the iPhone 6/6s/7/8, because it’s essentially the same size as those models, just a little bit longer.)

  • Edge to edge screen: I love Touch ID (more on that below), but there’s no denying that an edge-to-edge screen is great. Whether or not you mind the notch, the iPhone X’s screen looks fantastic and maximizes the potential screen area. Once you’ve used the X, the traditional iPhone design, with the Home-button “chin” on the bottom and “forehead” at the top, looks a little clunky.

  • Face ID notifications peek: I’m a little disappointed in Face ID (see below), but one area where I absolutely love it is for lock-screen notifications. On most iPhones with notifications enabled on the lock screen, you see the entirety of each notification. On the X, the content of each notification is hidden until Face ID authenticates you, at which point all notifications expand to show you their contents. It strikes the perfect balance between convenience and security—and it doesn’t hurt that it feels a little like magic.

  • Tap screen to wake: To wake the screen on other iPhone models, you must either press the Home button or lift the phone. On the iPhone X, you can wake the screen by just tapping it at any time—for example, when the phone is sitting on your desk. It seems like a little thing, but, as with app switching, I miss this feature dozens of times per day now that I’m using an 8 Plus again.

Things about the X that impressed me less than they were supposed to

A few of the X’s signature features ended up being less compelling for me than expected. These aren’t bad, by any means, but they aren’t better enough than what you get with the 8 Plus to have made me buy the X.

  • Face ID: Face ID is pretty impressive in real-world use: It’s fast, it works most of the time, and as I noted above, it feels a bit like magic. It’s especially great in situations where Touch ID can be problematic, such as when your fingers are wet.

    That said, unless my fingers are wet, Touch ID almost always works on the first try; Face ID fails often enough, even after months of “training,” that when using the iPhone X, I often wished it had Touch ID. A 5% or 3% failure rate doesn’t seem like much, but it’s noticeably worse than essentially 0% or 1% over scores of unlocks every day.

    Beyond that, there are more times in my daily life when Touch ID is better than Face ID than vice versa. For example, if I need to access my phone when it’s lying flat on my desk or the kitchen counter, or use it while it’s in a mount in my car (when I’m parked, natch), Face ID requires me to contort my body to get my face directly in front of the screen; with Touch ID, I just place my thumb or finger on the Home button, regardless of the relative position of the phone. And while Touch ID doesn’t work well with wet fingers, if there’s moisture on the screen itself, or if I’m wearing certain sunglasses, or if I’ve got something partially blocking my face, Face ID usually fails.

    And in those situations where both Touch ID and Face ID work perfectly, Touch ID is noticeably faster.

    Of course, Face ID is probably going to be on every iPhone going forward, so I’ll eventually have to embrace it. And I’m assuming that Face ID will gets better over time, much as Touch ID did with every new iPhone and iOS release. But right now, I prefer Touch ID.

  • The screen: Apple raves about the iPhone X’s OLED screen almost as much as Face ID, and it is indeed a Very Good Screen. It’s bright, with great contrast and blacks, and as I mentioned above, the edge-to-edge design is fantastic. But as with all OLED screens right now, the color shift when you look at the X’s screen from an angle is easily noticeable, and to reduce energy use and burn-in risk, it seems to dim more quickly than the screen on other iPhones (though I haven’t done any controlled tests to confirm this). I’m sure in a couple years we’ll wonder how we ever survived using these primitive LED screens, but right now, I don’t feel like I’m missing out by going back to the 8 Plus.

  • Zoom lens optical image stabilization (OIS): I thought I’d really notice the improvements in photo and video quality from having OIS on the iPhone X’s telephoto lens compared to the non-OIS telephoto lens on the iPhone 8 Plus. But while I’m sure a few of the photos and videos I’ve taken over the past five months have been better because of it, I really haven’t missed this feature—or even noticed the lack of it—since switching back to the 8 Plus.

  • Selfie portrait mode and Animoji: These features are both nifty, but after the first few weeks of trying them out and showing them to other people, I’ve rarely used either.

Things that are a wash

When you upgrade from a several-years-old phone to the latest model, the differences in performance and overall experience are immediately noticeable. Not so much when comparing these two.

  • Performance: The X and 8 Plus use the same processors and almost the same cameras (the X’s zoom lens is an ƒ/2.4 with optical image stabilization, while the 8 Plus’s is an ƒ/2,8 without optical image stabilization). In day-to-day use, the two phones are effectively identical in performance.

  • The overall experience: These are both latest-and-greatest models running the same software, and the differences in everyday use are much smaller than the differences between an iPhone and a flagship smartphone from another company. They’re both iPhones, they both feel like iPhones, and you get used to the UI differences pretty quickly. If one had never existed, the world—tech pundits aside—would be fine.

Things I like better about the 8 Plus (i.e., Why I bought it)

Now we get to the good stuff—the reasons that convinced me to buy the 8 Plus instead of the X this year.

  • Screen size: Apple’s iPhone-comparison page makes a big (literally—look at that font size!) deal about the iPhone X’s 5.8-inch screen compared to 5.5 for the 8 Plus and 4.7 for the iPhone 8. But here’s the thing: In real-world use, the 8 Plus often has noticeably more usable screen area than the X.

    For example, because the 8 Plus’s screen is wider, it has a better aspect ratio for viewing photos and videos—they’re larger than on the X in both portrait and landscape orientation (landscape shown here):

    A video on the iPhone 8 Plus (top) and X (bottom).

    A video on the iPhone 8 Plus (top) and X (bottom). Photo: Dan Frakes

    You can zoom in on the X to get a slightly wider image, but then you end up seeing less of the image than on the 8 Plus:

    The same video, but zoomed in on the X.

    The same video, but zoomed in on the X. Photo: Dan Frakes

    This ends up being true for most landscape-orientation games, too: Few are designed to be better with a shorter, wider screen, so most look better on the 8 Plus.

    I also prefer the 8 Plus for reading. While the 8 Plus and X show about the same amount of text, I find that the 8 Plus’s aspect ratio makes it easier to read: In portrait orientation, the 8 Plus is wider enough that it feels easier to read, especially if I increase text size; in landscape orientation (which I admittedly don’t use much when reading), the X feels more cramped top to bottom.

    The iPhone 8 (left), X (middle), and 8 Plus (right) showing the same NYT page.

    The iPhone 8 (left), X (middle), and 8 Plus (right) showing the same NYT page. Photo: Dan Frakes

    But where I notice the aspect-ratio difference the most is with the onscreen portrait-orientation keyboard. On the X, it’s the same size as on the iPhone 8; on the 8 Plus, it’s larger enough that I can type much faster and with fewer errors:

    The portrait-orientation keyboard on the iPhone X (left) and 8 Plus (right). Google keyboard shown.

    The portrait-orientation keyboard on the iPhone X (left) and 8 Plus (right). Google keyboard shown. Photo: Dan Frakes

    (If rumors are to be believed, Apple will wipe away the 8 Plus’s screen advantages this fall with an “iPhone X Plus,” so if you find the above reasons compelling, I recommend waiting to buy a new phone. I didn’t have that luxury ;-) )

  • Touch ID: As I mentioned above when talking about Face ID, Touch ID is faster, more reliable, and less inconvenient in general for me. One example I didn’t mention up there: Apple Pay and App Store purchases. I find it much easier to authenticate using Touch ID than to have to press the side button twice (without accidentally pressing the volume buttons—see below) and look directly at the screen for Face ID.

  • Battery life: The iPhone X has pretty good battery life, but as with other Plus-size iPhones, the 8 Plus’s battery life really stands out. Despite Apple’s claims that the two phones have similar use times, I’ve found that over the course of a normal day, the X needs a charge earlier than the 8 Plus.

  • Control Center: As I noted above, I love the X’s swipe-up gesture to go to the Home screen. Unfortunately, by stealing this gesture from Control Center, Apple had to find a different way to invoke Control Center on the X. And the result, swiping down from the top-right edge of the screen, stinks. I have pretty big hands—I can touch the upper-left corner of the 8 Plus’s screen when holding it in my right hand—but accessing Control Center is one of my least favorite things about the iPhone’s X’s interface. It’s actually worse for a righty than reaching the opposite top corner, because when reaching for the opposite corner, you have to tilt the phone’s body toward your thumb, so you get a better grip on the phone. Accessing Control Center with one hand (if you can even do it) is an awkward gesture for a righty that always makes me feel like I’m going to drop the phone.

    I don’t expect Control Center to move back to the bottom of the screen, given the new Home gesture, but considering that the point of Control Center is convenient access to frequently used things, there has to be a better solution for Home-button-free iPhones.

  • The screenshot shortcut: I’ve never liked Apple’s decision to move the Sleep/Wake button from the top edge of the phone to the side. It’s too easy to accidentally press one of the volume buttons when trying to sleep the phone, or (the worst) to put the phone to sleep when you’re trying to use the Volume Up button to take a photo or start recording video. But without a Home button on the X, Apple had to come up with a new shortcut for taking screenshots (Sleep/Wake + Volume Up), and it makes the current location of the Sleep/Wake button even worse. I don’t think I’ve ever accidentally taken a screenshot on the 8 Plus. I did that on the X multiple times each week.

  • Look at it.

    Just look at it.

    The iPhone 8 Plus in (PRODUCT)RED  Photo: Dan Frakes

    The iPhone 8 Plus in (PRODUCT)RED. Photo: Dan Frakes

    (The red looks so good, and the decision between the X and 8 Plus was so close, that had Apple released a red iPhone X instead of a red 8 Plus, this article might have been titled “Why I bought an iPhone X even though I like using the 8 Plus a little better,” with just a picture of the phone and no text.)

Gear I Love: Vector Cup Holder

[I spent last week on vacation, so — like any respectable gear geek — I took the opportunity to try some new gear. I plan to write about a few of those items over the next few weeks.]

Anthro’s sturdy cup holder. Mine is black.

Anthro’s sturdy cup holder. Mine is black.

[You can buy the Vector Cup Holder on Amazon to support this site. Thanks!]

When I’m working (or playing) at my computer, some kind of beverage is always within reach. Unfortunately, electronics don’t like liquids — I’ve got the [water/juice/soda]-damaged gadgets to prove it. So for years I’ve had Anthro’s $30 c-clamp Cup Holder on each of my office’s two desks, to (a) keep my cups and mugs safely away from the gear on my work surfaces; and (b) reduce the chances that I’ll accidentally tip one of those containers over. The sturdy, metal accessories are heavy and bulky, but they don’t budge, and they accommodate even moderately wide coffee cups.

My years of satisfaction with these Anthro cup holders are why I was excited to discover, last year, a Kickstarter project for a portable cup holder designed to provide similar benefits. I immediately pledged $30 to get one of the first 200 units.

The design of the Cup Holder is simple but clever. Made of aluminum, it weighs only 3.3 ounces (96 grams); when collapsed for travel, it’s flat and less than half an inch thick. Pull the round cup ring away from the body of the Cup Holder and rotate it 90 degrees, and you have a holder that’s almost 3.5 inches deep and fits cups up to 3.4 inches in diameter. Squeeze the spring-loaded arm to open the clamp, and it fits tables up to 1.5 inches thick. The strong spring and rubber strips along the clamp arms give the Cup Holder a firm grip.

The Cup Holder, folded for travel

The Cup Holder, folded for travel

My Vector Cup Holders 1arrived earlier this year, and I’ve been using them around the house — on my office desks and on the communal desk in the family room — for several months; I’ve also used one on the occasional trip to the coffee shop. In those environments, the Cup Holders worked well. They gave me more room on whatever desk or table I happened to be using, they kept my drink safely away from my laptop or keyboard, and, as promised, they helped prevent me from accidentally knocking my drink over.

But last week, flying to and from Hawaii with the kids, was the first chance I had to try the Cup Holders in the environment for which I originally purchased them: in the economy section of a commercial airliner.

The Cup Holder in use on a flight

The Cup Holder in use on a flight

On the downside, I was disappointed to discover that on our two United Airlines flights, the space between adjacent tray tables wasn’t wide enough to accommodate a Cup Holder. This meant that if the person next to me was also using his/her tray table, I couldn’t place my drink to the side of the table; I had to attach the Cup Holder to the front edge. In a cramped coach seat, this wasn’t ideal, but it worked for me, a pretty skinny guy, and it wasn’t a problem at all for my young kids.

And that’s where the upside of the Cup Holders was obvious: While I appreciated a Cup Holder for my own drink, the Cup Holders were fantastic for traveling with kids. They fit airline drink cups perfectly, and cans of juice just fine — it was the first family trip we’ve taken where we (the parents) didn’t have to worry about the kids knocking over their drinks or ours. Even the flight attendants were impressed, as each and every one asked us where we got the Cup Holders.2

The rubber bumper that never wants to stick

The rubber bumper that never wants to stick

I do have a couple minor complaints about the Cup Holders themselves. For one, the edges are a bit sharper than I expected. You won’t cut yourself on them, but they’re not smooth, and they can scratch your other gear if you’re not careful. Another is that the rubber grip strip along the inside of the clamp has a tendency to partially come loose. When the Cup Holder is clamped onto a table, the strip is clamped in place, too, so it doesn’t affect the use of the Cup Holder, but it still takes away from the otherwise solid feel of the product.

At $50 each, the Cup Holder isn’t cheap, but after traveling with a couple, I’d buy one at full price, especially if I were flying more than a couple times each year — and especially if I were regularly flying with children. If you’ll end up using it at home, too, it’s even easier to justify.

(If you’ve found anything similar for less money, let me know on Twitter.)

  1. Yes, plural. For some reason, I received two Cup Holders. I contacted the company about returning the extra one, but I never received a reply. I’m assuming that arranging a return was more trouble than it was worth for VectorWerks.
  2. VectorWerks should provide little cards with the company’s information, like Bose has been doing for years with its noise-canceling headphones.

The iPhone 6 Plus “case” I’m currently using

(Or: A review of BodyGuardz’s UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6 Plus.)

In the month since I got my iPhone 6 Plus, a good number of people have asked what case I’ve got on my phone. I was initially using the Griffin Technology Reveal—it was one of the first cases I received, and it’s pretty nice. It’s not too bulky; its rubbery frame offers some shock protection and extends far enough past the screen to protect it when you set the phone face-down; and it covers the back of the phone with clear, rigid plastic. As good-protection cases go, it doesn’t add much bulk, and while the phone is noticeably heavier with the Reveal on, it’s not excessively so.

However…I’d rather not use a case. After regularly having one on my iPhones over the years, I decided to go “naked” about halfway through my time with the iPhone 5s. I was never a huge fan of the harsh edges on the 5s, but I liked how much thinner and lighter the phone felt without a case.

This is even more true with the 6 Plus: Its thin profile and rounded edges almost beg you to use it bare. It’s the first iPhone since the original that I’ve felt guilty encasing.

But I still wanted something to keep the iPhone 6 Plus’s all-metal exterior from scratching, and if it added a bit of grip, even better—the 6 and 6 Plus are quite slippery.

BodyGuardz UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

I’ve had great experiences with BodyGuardz’s protective skins, using them on various laptops, iPads, and iPods. So I ordered the “back-only” version of the company’s UltraTough Clear Skins for the iPhone 6. 1 I’ve been using it for a week, and I’m really liking it.

Like other BodyGuardz skins, this one is made of “the same material used to shield the front of vehicles from rock chips,” says the company. It protects against scratches—though, obviously, not shock and dents—and gives the surface of the phone a bit of tackiness, while adding minimal bulk. It’s also relatively inexpensive, at just $17.

This is a wet-apply skin, which means that instead of using traditional adhesive, like a big sticker, you wet your fingers and the skin with the included solution, and then position the skin on your phone. The downside to wet-apply skins is that the solution can be a bit messy; sometimes you need to hold edges or corners in place for a few minutes while the skin sets; and it takes about a day for the skin to dry completely. The upside is that wet-apply skins are easier to move during the application process: You just pull the skin up, rewet it if necessary, and reposition it. You then squeeze out any large bubbles; tiny bubbles generally go away after a few days.

I applied the skin at around 8pm one evening, and by the next morning, it was essentially dry, or at least dry enough to use normally. Besides scratch protection, the BodyGuardz skin adds a nice bit of grip to the phone—it’s already saved me from a couple accidental drops.

Corner of the UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

The corner coverage of the UltraTough Clear Skins for iPhone 6

The skin has two drawbacks. The first, which is admittedly minor, is that it changes the phone’s surface appearance from matte to glossy, and the glossy surface shows fingerprints. The second—which is true of all products like this—is that the rounded edges of the iPhone 6 models make it difficult for skins to completely cover either device’s corners. The BodyGuardz skin wraps up the edges of the phone, and then thin tabs wrap around the corners. Provided you hold these little tabs down long enough during application for them to set, they seem to stay in place well during everyday use—mine haven’t come loose yet—but they leave thin sections of each corner unprotected against scratches, and I wonder how well these thin tabs will hold up over time. (If they ever do come loose, at least BodyGuardz offers inexpensive replacement skins—$4.95 for the iPhone 6 Plus version.)

In other words, the BodyGuardz skin is a compromise: You protect most of the phone’s metal surfaces from scratches, and get a better grip, while adding virtually no bulk. But you give up complete surface protection, as well as any impact protection. That may not be the right compromise for you, but it was for me—I’m happy overall.

(If I have any longer-term issues with the BodyGuardz skin, I’ll update this article.)

  1. Why did I get the back-only version, instead of the full-coverage one, which also includes a screen protector? I’ve tried dozens of screen protectors over the years, and while some are pretty good, I’ve yet to find a single one that offers a combination of clear view, touchscreen responsiveness, and oleophobic finish comparable to the iPhone’s own screen. Worse, few protectors are as hard as that screen, so you end up with distracting scratches in the protector, most of which wouldn’t have been scratches on the phone’s glass. In other words, the experience is worse enough that I’ve resigned myself to risking screen blemishes.

My review of OS X 10.10 Yosemite

Speaking of Yosemite, I reviewed Apple’s new OS for LaptopMag. The conclusion:

Each year, Apple announces a new version of OS X, usually proclaiming the release to be the largest update yet. But OS X 10.10 Yosemite really does feel, and look, like it’s worthy of the hype, especially if you own multiple Apple devices. It’s the first version of OS X that truly embraces Apple’s ever-widening ecosystem by letting you use your Macs, iPhones and iPads as part of a coherent computing system, rather than as disparate devices fighting for your attention. And for iOS users who are new to the Mac, Yosemite makes the transition from mobile to desktop (and back again) as seamless as I’ve seen to date.

I’d still like to see the Finder, and OS X’s file-management features as a whole, get the overhaul they deserve, so that both basic and power users can work more efficiently. (Open and save dialogs, for example, haven’t changed much in years.) It’s also a shame, if technologically understandable, that so many of the best features of Yosemite require newer hardware, on both the Mac and iOS side. And like any new OS, Yosemite’s initial release has a few glitches. But Yosemite will likely change—for the better—how many users work every day.